The way past the stalemate - Zafar Hilaly - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For readouts on a foreign leader’s reaction to US actions and proposals most US administrations have an informally designated point-man whom they can readily turn to. Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a college friend of Benazir Bhutto, was often tasked to elicit her informal reactions. The late Richard Holbrooke was meant to handle our current civilian lot, especially Mr Zardari, and Admiral Mullen is tagged exclusively to General Kayani. Many a time, resident US ambassadors also play that role. One US ambassador got so chummy with a former Pakistani president that his daughter married the president’s son.

The task of these ‘handlers’ is to strike up good working and personal relationships with their assignee, and in the process become familiar with their foibles as well as strengths. It is not necessarily a sinister role and can serve a useful and benign purpose. However, theirs is not merely a listening brief; they have to be able to dish it out too. And, by the looks of it, that is what Admiral Mullen came here to do earlier this week.

The trouble with having friends who are far richer and stronger like America is that you end up either being taken for granted or bullied into doing the ‘friend’s’ bidding. Musharraf discovered this to his eventual ruin and Mr Zardari is following in his predecessor’s footsteps even though he thinks he is being very smart.

Their examples are a lesson for Kayani, who hopefully will not buckle in to Mullen and not just because it will earn him unpopularity if he does so. America not only has a habit of letting its friends down but ends up deceiving them, which is worse. The alacrity with which Hosni Mubarak, America’s most vaunted Arab ally, was jettisoned by Washington is one example. Nevertheless, when it comes to America ‘ditching’ friends in trouble, the Shah of Iran remains the most outstanding example.

Rather than vague promises, opaque responses and mincing words, all meant to bolster the ‘feel good’ factor to which we ‘orientals’ are so prone, we would do ourselves and the Americans a good turn if we are honest, even to a fault.

‘How could the great Pakistani people, support an ignorant one-eyed mullah like Mullah Omar?’ asked King Zaheer Shah. ‘Because, Your Majesty, we felt it in our interest to do so; for that matter and for the same reason we would have even supported a blind mullah,’ I replied, adding – lest his son in law, General Wali, who was doing the translating missed the emphasis – ‘and anyone who avers to the contrary is a liar.’

Hence, why hide the fact that we tolerate the presence of the Afghan Taliban in North Waziristan and also maintain contacts with them. ‘Even if a hair binds me to my enemy’, said Yezid to his son Muawiyah, ‘I cherish it because with it I can pull him or push him. Without it I have nothing.’ It appears that Karzai wants to do the same and, what is more, seeks our assistance in doing so.

Moreover, as his intelligence chief revealed in Karzai’s presence on December 27, 2007, he personally used to negotiate the price of individual suicide bombers with their Taliban handlers in order to buy them off from plying their deadly trade in Afghanistan. He must have known them well because he always knew which numbers to call.

But what is relevant is not that we have dealings with the Afghan Taliban of the Haqqani group but rather, why this is so. Is it because we identify with the Afghan Taliban and are at one with them and their cause? Or, because at present we believe that by taking them on we will be offering up our defenseless people and cities as targets for the mayhem we know they can cause?

If it is the former, Washington would be more than justified to cease all its dealings with Pakistan and treat us as an undeclared enemy. Indeed, if the Americans could assure us that the Afghan Taliban would only target our soldiers, but not our civilians, (much as American civilians are safe thanks to being seven seas away) we would indeed deserve no better.

But, if it is the latter, then the Americans should cease their exasperating rants and veiled threats which frankly do nothing but enrage the population without really scaring their interlocutors. No doubt, this war is best fought jointly but it can only be fought thus on mutually agreed terms and not by American bullying.

In any case, differences among allies are not peculiar to the US-Pak relationship. Even during World War II, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had a hard time keeping the boat on an even keel, with suspicions on all sides about the priorities of the other. But tactical compromises especially between Roosevelt and Churchill, on the one hand, and Stalin on the other hand, kept the alliance going, while getting rid of Hitler kept them together.

In our case, the situation is more complicated. While the US wants to get rid of the Afghan Taliban, we see them as a counterweight to the Northern Alliance backed by India. We also do not want to rub them the wrong way while we are waist deep in our own insurgency. The one thing that could greatly reduce this friction is if the two sides, the US more in this case, can gravitate towards a post-war vision of Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be convinced that they have a future and that continued insurgency will not greatly improve their situation.

It would be sensible to do that because internally Afghanistan is so disorganised/dysfunctional that it will not be able to see stability if it is imposed by one side or the other, while defeating the Afghan Taliban militarily in any meaningful sense is not possible for the US (unless it can get Pakistan to abandon its own internal and external interests and concerns).

So, the best use of military force would be to get the Taliban to seriously consider going to the negotiating table as a better alternative.

In any case, time is running out on the US as its public gets increasingly disenchanted and the administration lacks the finances and manpower to further escalate their presence in Afghanistan. Nato was already seeking to bow out and the US risks becoming virtually alone in Afghanistan.

The fact is, as some of us have gone hoarse saying so, that a victory is out of the question for America; a stalemate lies ahead. And, as the US draws down its combat role under its 2014 target, victory will become even more distant.

The upshot is that the US should modify its approach and subordinate the war effort to a serious and refurbished peace effort. Alienating Pakistan will get the US nowhere; it would make matters worse for all sides except the Afghan Taliban.

The time has come, therefore, for Obama to reassert the power that he, and not the American military, was elected to exercise. The latter has shot its bolt in Afghanistan; and is now blaming Pakistan for its failures and lack of foresight.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email:

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